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Nigeria Pipeline Blast; Winning Confirmation Challenge for General Michael Hayden; Gay History Bill; Internet Child Porn

Aired May 12, 2006 - 08:59   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Mining a backlash. Could the government effort to sift through phone records spell trouble for the president's choice as CIA chief?
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: California is one step closer to putting positive gay and lesbian role models into their textbooks. Find out how this could affect your school district.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: A teenager's story to Congress about Internet predators leads to an arrest. We're going to talk this morning with the Michigan attorney general about the case and the ongoing crackdown.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: This getaway Friday is turning into a sit-around Friday. Airport delays all up and down the East Coast. Your full forecast for the weekend coming up on this AMERICAN MORNING.

S. O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome back, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien.

M. O'BRIEN: And I'm Miles O'Brien. Glad you're with us on this Friday morning. A lot going on this hour that we're looking after right now. We're monitoring three big stories for you.

At the Pentagon right now, reporters waiting for a briefing from the second in charge of multinational forces. We're following the latest developments.

Tony Snow will hold his first White House briefing shortly. It's set to begin just minutes from now. Elaine Quijano will be there. We'll check in with her, see how that goes.

And President Bush is meeting with secretaries past and present. Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld set to arrive at the White House shortly, along with Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, and Robert McNamara, just to name a few. We'll tell you more about that.

A political storm brewing over news the National Security Agency has a database of millions of Americans' phone calls. It came from a "USA Today" piece yesterday. The program developed under General Michael Hayden when he was head of the super-secret National Security Agency. The president would like Mr. Hayden, General Hayden, to head the CIA now.

Live now to Capitol Hill and Congressional Correspondent Andrea Koppel.

It should be some interesting questioning today, Andrea.


Later this hour, in fact, General Hayden is scheduled to begin yet another round of those courtesy calls here on Capitol Hill, meeting with senators ahead of next week's confirmation hearing. You know, since President Bush tapped him to be his next CIA chief, there has been a lot of criticism and actually support as well of General Hayden. But now even some of his biggest supporters say winning confirmation is going to be an even greater challenge.


KOPPEL (voice over): Reaction from lawmakers was fast and furious.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: The press is doing our work for us, and we should be ashamed of it. Shame on us in being so far behind and being so willing to rubberstamp anything this administration does.

SEN. JON KYL (R), ARIZONA: This is nuts. We are in a war, and we've got to collect intelligence on the enemy. And you can't tell the enemy in advance how you're going to do it.

KOPPEL: The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee called for a hearing and said he expected answers.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: And we will be calling upon AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth, as well as others, to see some of the underlying facts when we can't find out from the Department of Justice or other administration officials.

KOPPEL: The first casualty of the disclosure of the NSA telephone databank could be the smooth nomination of the man who helped develop it, General Michael Hayden, President Bush's choice to head the CIA. Now even early supporters are expressing doubts.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: I happen to believe we're on our way to a major constitutional confrontation on Fourth Amendment guarantees of unreasonable search and seizure. And I think this is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of General Hayden, and I think that is very regretted.

KOPPEL: As for General Hayden, after the White House canceled his morning appointments, suddenly he and senior Republican Mitch McConnell appeared together, a brief photo-op to send the message Hayden has nothing to hide. But Democrats charge the Bush administration does, disputing Hayden's statement that Congress was briefed on all NSA programs.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: The administration wants to have the upside of saying dozens of briefings were held, but they won't release the list as to who was briefed and when.


KOPPEL: And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also met with the speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, yesterday afternoon to ask him to launch an investigation by the House Intelligence Committee -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Andrea Koppel on Capitol Hill.

Thank you very much.

Happening "In America," a cab driver bo provide an alibi for one of those Duke lacrosse players accused of rape is arrested by Durham police. It was a 3-year-old shoplifting warrant. The cabby, Moez Mostafa, told police he gave Duke lacrosse player Reade Seligman a ride at the time of the sexual assault he is accused of. An attorney for Seligman says the arrest of Mostafa is a little more than police intimidation.

Kentucky's governor may be forced to leave office after being indicted for criminal conspiracy. Republican Governor Ernie Fletcher now facing charges stemming from an alleged plan to steer state jobs to political supporters. Fletcher called the indictment by the state's attorney general politically motivated. The attorney general is a Democrat.

National Guard troops could soon be federalized to help patrol the U.S.-Mexico board. Up until now, the military has played a limited role in securing the border. The Defense Department is looking into some military options for border security at the request of lawmakers from border states.

A pair of cold-hearted human smugglers to face a judge today on charges they helped hide 56 illegal immigrants in a refrigerated trailer. All 56 found huddled, locked inside a refrigerator truck. They were shivering in Laredo, Texas. It was abandoned there. Most have already been returned to Mexico.

Kinky Friedman tossing his hat and his cigar into the ring, potentially. He's one step closer for race for governor in Texas. The author and entertainer handed in a petition to put himself on the ballot with three times the signatures required. Someone asked Kinky how he got all those signatures. He said, "Thank god for bars and dance halls" -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: With no sarcasm at all, I'm sure.

M. O'BRIEN: Not at all. Not at all. Not Kinky.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, California lawmakers have approved a bill requiring textbooks in public schools to include positive mentions of gay and lesbian figures.

Let's get to Betty Nguyen with more this morning on this story. She's at the CNN Center in Atlanta. Hey, Betty. Good morning again.

NGUYEN: Good morning, Soledad.

California Senate Bill 1437 is the first of its kind nationwide. By providing positive role models, part of the goal is to reduce social estrangement and high suicide rates among gay and lesbian students.

Here's how this bill works.

Social science courses would include an age-appropriate study highlighting the contributions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It will focus on areas of economic, political and social development.

Now, the bill's sponsor, California Senator Sheila Kuehl, who is openly gay, says the new measure is necessary despite an anti- harassment bill that was passed seven years ago.

Take a listen.


SHEILA KUEHL, CALIFORNIA STATE SENATE: Absent these basic legal protections and lacking positive role models in their curriculum, these youth often feel, and I guess rightly so, invisible and worthless.


NGUYEN: But some conservative groups are already lobbying Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto the bill. Opponents say the California legislator has no business mandating what should and should not be taught. They say that is up to individual school districts.

Senator Bill Morrow even ratcheted up the tone, saying, "There's something very dangerous if not insidious in this bill." He says there is no reason for a textbook to point out historical figures' sexual orientation when their contribution to history has nothing to do with their sexual proclivities.

This bill, which was supported in the California Senate by a 22- 15 vote, with all 14 Republicans opposed, must still be approved by the assembly and Governor Schwarzenegger. And so far, Schwarzenegger has taken no position on it. But if passed, this textbook bill could have national implications, Soledad. California often sets trends in the textbook market, and many publishers put out a specific edition for the state that others can also use.

S. O'BRIEN: So if indeed it passes, when do kids get taught the new material?

NGUYEN: All right, this is really interesting, because the legislation does not specify what should be included or at what grade level this new material should be taught. What we do know is, if passed, textbooks with this new material will be brought into California classrooms beginning in 2012. However, the bill's fate in the California assembly is not clear because of its strong contingent of modern Democrats. It's traditionally more reluctant to pass very liberal legislation -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right. Betty Nguyen for us this morning.

Thanks, Betty.

Let's get back to Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Look up in the sky. It's a bird, it's a plane. No, it's a busted up comet.

The Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 comet -- Schwass -- oh, whatever. A couple of German astronomers in 1930 discovered this one, Comet 73-P, which now is busted into 58 distinct little pieces. Check this out.

Those are all comet pieces, following the mother comet or the biggest piece like a -- well, like baby ducks following a mama duck. In any case, these are pictures, infrared shots from the Spitzer space telescope showing about 45 of the fragments as it makes its way near our planet.

How near, you say? Don't be worried. No chicken little time here. About seven million miles away, or about, let's see, I think it's 30 Earth moon distances.

Let's look at the other picture, though, quickly, the Hubble space telescope image. We want to show you -- there it is. The Hubble took a series of images, and you can see sort of the relative movement as it goes across.

It takes five and a half years for this comet --73-P I'm going to call it from now on -- to orbit the sun. In '95, when it went to its closest approach to the sun, it broke up. The gravitational pull of the sun did that. And so slowly but surely, we're seeing this dirty ice ball disintegrate into smaller dirty ice balls, which, of course, is what comets are.

Chad Myers...


M. O'BRIEN: ... are w going to be able to see it here? We're not going to be able to see it here, right?

MYERS: Right.

M. O'BRIEN: And it looks like Michigan's not going to get a very good shot at either.

MYERS: You're not going to see it in Chicago. The good news is, it's going to be around for a couple of weeks.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. MYERS: And the bad news is, it's actually a full moon tonight anyway, which makes a bright sky. You want a new moon, which is two weeks from now. You'll be able to see it a little bit better there.

But with the full moon today you will see a very bright -- well, it looks like a star; in fact, it's a planet -- on top of the moon today. It's actually Jupiter, if you want to get out and take a look.


S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, Democrats say -- some of them, at least -- they are outraged by that massive government database of Americans' phone records. What does the rest of the country think? We're going to check in with CNN contributor and radio talk show host Bill Bennett.

M. O'BRIEN: Also ahead, you'll meet some third graders who lifted a soldier's spirits by becoming his penpal. And now he's about to return the favor. You're going to be right there for a wonderful, pleasant surprise.

S. O'BRIEN: And later in "AM Pop," actor Jeremy Piven is in the studio. We talk about his new movie, "Keeping Up with the Steins".

Very funny.

M. O'BRIEN: It's got some great reviews. Have you seen it?

S. O'BRIEN: Hilariously funny. Yes, I've seen it.

M. O'BRIEN: I heard it's really funny.

S. O'BRIEN: I loved it.

We'll talk just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

Stay with us.


S. O'BRIEN: It was last month when a Michigan teenager told Congress a terrible story. A chilling story, really, about how he became the victim of Internet predators. He told lawmakers he was molested and how he was swept into a world of online child pornography.

Well, Michigan authorities have now made an arrest in a case. The main target of their investigation, though, is still at large.

CNN's Ed Lavandera has more.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): At age 13 Justin Berry says he was seduced by the world of online pornography. JUSTIN BERRY, ABUSE VICTIM: I was the king of my own universe. All I had to do in exchange was strip and masturbate while alone in my room.

LAVANDERA: Berry, now 19, first told federal investigators 10 months ago how men would make him to pose for pictures. Some, he says, also molested him. He gave investigators a list of 1,500 names and mentioned at last one person at a congressional hearing last month.

BERRY: One man, Ken Gourlay, approached me online. I was sexually arrested by Ken for what would prove to be the first of many times by him.

LAVANDERA: The 28-year-old computer consultant was there, too, under subpoena, but offered nothing to investigators.

KEN GOURLAY, COMPUTER CONSULTANT: I will decline to respond based on Fifth Amendment privilege.

LAVANDERA: He and his attorney refused to comment on the allegations. A picture of Gourlay and Barry together was posted on, a Web site that no longer exists. And in an online diary, someone identifying himself as Gourlay writes, "It would be a fantasy to makeout with Justin Berry."

And despite months of working with federal investigators, and even after Berry's story appeared in "The New York Times," Berry felt enough wasn't being done, especially while Gourlay remained free. Berry says he's lost faith.

BERRY: I have never been asked by law enforcement about any of the 1,500 names I provided them. Some of those who molested me, like Mr. Gourlay, and who made all of this possible are continuing to live their lives unaware or uncaring about any government inquiry.

LAVANDERA: So he turned to authorities in Michigan, Ken Gourlay's home state.

(on camera): This is where Ken lives here in Detroit. Earlier this week, Michigan state authorities raided the home, but they didn't arrest Gourlay. They arrested his roommate.

(voice over): Investigators say they found thousand of pornographic pictures on computers inside the home, but it was 24- year-old Edward Mulak (ph) who was arrested on charges of possessing child pornography. He's pleaded not guilty. Police would not say whether any of the pictures found contained images of Justin Berry.

Meanwhile, Gourlay calmly watched the raid go down. Because so much time has passed since his name surfaced, the Michigan attorney general believes Gourlay's been able to destroy some incriminating evidence against him. Mike Cox says his investigators are still building a case against Gourlay.

MIKE COX, MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL: Justice will be served in Michigan. We don't drop the ball. We'll take care of things. Just people have to let the wheels of justice turn here, and the right thing will happen.

LAVANDERA: In the meantime, Ken Gourlay sits behind the windows of his home, and Justin Berry can only sit and wait, hoping that one arrest will lead to another.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Detroit.


S. O'BRIEN: Mike Cox is Michigan's attorney general, and he joins us this morning from Detroit.

Nice to see you, sir. Thank you for talking with us.

COX: Well, thank you, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's first talk about Edward Mulak (ph). He's the guy, the relatively young man, 24 years old, who has now been arrested. What exactly is -- do you allege his role is in all of this? He's the roommate of the man who was named by Justin Berry in front of Congress.

COX: Right. As you pointed out in the story, we did a raid the other day of the home shared by Mr. Mulak (ph) and Mr. Gourlay, and actually two other adult men. And we have found -- and we are charging and intend to prove in court that Mr. Mulak (ph) had in possession child pornography.

As your story indicated, there was thousands of photos in the home, a number of servers, and a number of computers. In fact, as one of my investigators told me, enough servers to run my office of 500 employees.

So we're continuing to sift through the information. We're very disturbed by what Justin Berry, who, by the way, is a California teenager who traveled to Michigan at Mr. Gourlay's invitation and expense, we are very disturbed by that and we've been following up. Quite frankly, Soledad, the first I heard about it, I read the same "New York Times" article.

S. O'BRIEN: Right, the one that shocked absolutely everybody when it was right on the front page.

COX: Exactly. And I'm reading it, and the story mentions -- Mr. Eichenwald (ph) mentions about a Michigan connection, and right away we jumped on it, because, you know, it's a disturbing world out there that our children are all going out there -- it's a great opportunity, the Internet, but, of course, it's fraught with danger.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, yes, it scares everybody. But here's my question. I mean, you could see in that congressional testimony, you could see Justin Berry very frustrated...

COX: Right. S. O'BRIEN: ... because he's claiming that Ken Gourlay raped him. I mean, he says he was sexually assaulted. He's not talking about the online part of it.

COX: Right.

S. O'BRIEN: He is saying that he was physically sexually assaulted in your state by that man.

COX: Right.

S. O'BRIEN: Many people would say, why is that guy not in cuffs and, you know, taken off the street?

COX: Well, like I said in your set-up piece, it's a matter of doing the proper investigation. I mean, we just saw the trial of Jeff Skilling, Ken Lay. Enron just ended three years after the fact.

The bottom line is, we have to put all of the pieces together. Part of that is, is what we did with Mr. Mulak (ph) the other day.

I'm not -- I'm not going to tell you today that we're going to charge Mr. Gourlay. We're going to accumulate evidence, and we're going to charge whoever is involved with offending or hurting Justin Berry, or any other children or any other adults that we find.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, you know, I will beg exception to your analogy with Enron in these two ways. First, when you talk about time, you know, delay in an investigation or really taking the time, putting the pieces together, you're really talking about a guy who could be getting rid of evidence, number one. Really not the same thing necessarily in Enron.

And number two, you are talking about someone who was raping an underaged child. So really a difference. I mean, that person could be a danger and could go on to do the same thing potentially to other children.

So, I guess in another case, in any case where someone came to your office and said, "I've been molested"...

COX: Right.

S. O'BRIEN: ... "I'm a child and I've been molested," I always feel like that would be wrapped up or investigated very quickly, immediately.

COX: Well, Soledad, I was actually a county prosecutor for 15 years before I was elected. And sometimes you have to put the case together the right way instead of rushing out the gate and blowing the opportunity to do the case the right way.

At end of the day, I think Justin Berry is going to be satisfied with what we do here in Michigan. I realize he was disappointed with what happened with the federal government Department of Justice, and we're working through that. As I indicated, the way we found out about Justin Berry was through the newspapers, because he was a young man from Bakersfield, California, who came here on sporadic visits. And I can assure you and Mr. Berry and everyone else out there that justice will be served in this case. And the whole reason -- generally we don't talk until we wrap everything up -- but the whole reason that we want to talk about this is we need to keep reminding parents, we need to keep reminding parents that you have to take control of the computers in your house. Not to -- not to be overly strict, but to ensure that your children are protected, because the parents are the number one defense to this kind of crime.

S. O'BRIEN: Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox.

Thank you for talking with us this morning. I know Justin Berry obviously is going to watch what your office does, and all of us as well.

Thank you.

COX: Well, thank you very much, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: My pleasure -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: This just in to CNN, reports of a huge pipeline explosion outside of Lagos, Nigeria. According to some wire service reports, local media reports, it happened at an oil pipeline in a suburb of Ilado, which is just outside of Lagos.

Apparently, what happened was there was a rupture in a pipeline. People went to try to address that issue. And as they were doing that, there was a terrible explosion.

There are some reports up to 200 people may be dead as a result of all this. No word on the initial cause as to what caused that rupture or whether this might have been some sort of terrorist activity.

As we have been reporting to you all this past week, militants have been targeting Nigeria's oil industry in recent months. And the attacks have been taking a place in this general area, including recently an American oil worker who was killed by those militants. However, we do not know that this explosion, which may have killed upwards of 200 people, is linked to that activity.

We'll be watching it for you. As soon as we get some more information we'll give it to you, of course.

Coming up on the program, that massive government database of phone records. Are critics of the program making a mountain out of a molehill? We'll take a closer look at that.

Plus, the heartwarming link between some third graders and a soldier in Iraq. And you'll be there as they get to meet each other. And I don't think I've seen cuter kids in a long time.

Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: It's that time to check in with our CNN contributor, Bill Bennett. His radio show is called -- this is a brilliant title -- "Bill Bennett's Morning in America".

Good to have you with us.

He's here in New York City.

You were up here getting entertaining some sponsorship issues and all that.


M. O'BRIEN: Did the program from, what, the Empire State Building, right?

BENNETT: Exactly right.

M. O'BRIEN: That must have been kind of fun.

BENNETT: We didn't take the title from you guys. We took it from Ronald Reagan, believe it or not.

M. O'BRIEN: There you go. "Morning in America," of course.

BENNETT: "Morning in America." one of the greatest speeches ever. Let's talk about what people are talking about. They're talking about big brother. Are they described it that way in your program?

M. O'BRIEN: Of course. One of the greatest speeches ever.

BENNETT: That's right.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's talk about what people are talking about. I know what they're talking about. They're talking about big brother.

Are they describing it that way on your program?

BENNETT: No. No. It's interesting.

I mean, our audience is center right, and, you know, it would probably be 75 percent Bush voters. But people are very critical of the president on things like immigration. But on this one I didn't get a call today that wasn't angry about the furor, the furor made by the media, by the Democrats.

My audience was saying, shouldn't we be doing this sort of thing? Several people who had read "The New York Times" already very early online, or had the paper, pointed out that in another part of "The New York Times," on the front page, there's a story about the Brits and how they said they should have done more, should have tracked their intelligence better, and they could have stopped that bombing in London.

So one of my callers said, "How do we connect the dots if we don't collect the dots?" And this is collecting the dots.

M. O'BRIEN: You know, the Fourth Amendment is something near and dear to every conservative's heart.

BENNETT: It sure is.

M. O'BRIEN: And if you're a real conservative and you get far enough over on the right toward the libertarian world, you get upset when you see these kind of things, this use of -- you know, this kind of drag search mentality, this blunt object, when we pay a lot of smart people to do this in a way that should be a little more surgical, don't you think?

BENNETT: I think we can do both. I mean, this -- this kind of...

M. O'BRIEN: But do we have to do both?

BENNETT: I think this kind of data gathering is a very good idea. I mean, you want to track -- supposing you've got a terrorist, a suspected terrorist in Lodi, California, you've got one in Lackawanna, New York, you've got one in Florida, and all of a sudden there's a lot of traffic among those three telephone calls. That's interesting.


M. O'BRIEN: That -- but who could quibble with that, if you've got suspects and you're focusing on that?


M. O'BRIEN: This is focusing on you and me. My phone records are in there, just like yours.

BENNETT: Well, we don't know who the suspected terrorists are until we find out who they're talking to and who's calling them.

M. O'BRIEN: Right.

BENNETT: And this can be anybody, as we now know.

M. O'BRIEN: Right.

BENNETT: This is -- this is the problem.

M. O'BRIEN: But aren't there more clever ways to go about this?

BENNETT: Well, there may be, and my guess is that the smart people at NSA are not only doing this, they're also doing other things. I hope they're doing a million things at once. Look, we haven't been attacked. We're doing some things right.

M. O'BRIEN: No, and that's true. The fact is, we haven't had that spectacle. And who would have predicted after 9/11...


M. O'BRIEN: ... that we'd go this length of time without that spectacle.


M. O'BRIEN: So we have to give the people whoa re in charge of doing this credit for that. WE don't -- they don't get the trumpet when they have a success like this.


M. O'BRIEN: The thing is, though, they're drinking from a fire hose, aren't they? Billions and billions of pieces of data that are filtering down to who knows what.

BENNETT: Well, but, I mean, they have -- these are called computers. You know, I mean, they can get it down to you know what in very short order. And again, I think it's a mistake for people to call it an intrusion. I don't think it is a Fourth Amendment issue. I'm a Fourth Amendment guy, I'm a First Amendment guy. But when you're talking about just connecting the numbers. These are not wiretaps and not listening in on people's calls, showing numbers to numbers. Jack Cafferty, our beloved colleague, said yesterday, thank God Arlen Specter is standing between us and a dictatorship and our other beloved colleague said, Wolf, sound wisdom there. I mean, come one, this was my audience was reacting to it. Does the media always have to take sides in this kind of thing?

M. O'BRIEN: I don't know Jack Cafferty's a guy, who by definition takes sides; that's his job.

BENNETT: But does he always take the same side.

M. O'BRIEN: You could look at his record; he comes down on both sides of these things.

Here's the thing though, real quickly, is there a difference between this and going and doing wiretaps without warrants? Do you see a difference there?

BENNETT: Oh, absolutely. These are just phone numbers. Look, the supreme court has said...

M. O'BRIEN: Do you have a problem with the warrant-less wiretapping?

BENNETT: I don't have the problem with the first program where you're tapping the phones of people who are talking to terrorist overseas. But you were taking domestic wiretapping of the entire population. Very serious problem, but they're not doing that.

M. O'BRIEN: OK, Bill Bennett, thanks for dropping by...

BENNETT: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: ... in person today. CNN contributor and you're a fellow, a hale and hearty of the Claremont Institute.

BENNETT: Right. That's where I do radio, hale and hearty.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Up early in the morning, we know how that goes -- Soledad.


S. O'BRIEN: Thanks, guys. Still to come this morning, a touching story of friendship between a soldier in Iraq and a class of third-graders in New York, and the special surprise he gave to his little pen pals. We'll explain.

And in "AM Pop" actor Jeremy Given talks about the inspiration for his very funny new movie. It's called "Keeping Up With the Steins." That's ahead.

Stay with us. You're watching AMERICAN MORNING.



S. O'BRIEN: American soldiers fighting in Iraq. Well, you know, the little things make all the difference, an e-mail or a phone call, or care packages, letters. So when one soldier became pen pals with a class of third-graders in New York, he was grateful and he wanted to give back.

AMERICAN MORNING's Alina Cho has our story.

Good morning.

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad.

He gave them the surprise of their lives. You know, Most of these children are just eight or nine years old, but they know that soldiers serving in Iraq can get lonely. They know because of the past six months or so they've been writing letters to Sergeant Travis Collier, and he's been writing them back individually.

That would have been enough for these kids, but Collier decided he could do one better, and the kids are not in on the secret.


CHO: These third graders from Saint Patrick's school in Smithtown, New York, get the Surprise of their lives. But for now, they think we're Here to talk to them their about their soldier pen pal. We asked them to read the Letters received from Sergeant Travis Collier.

ERIN MCCORMICK, STUDENT: I love to go to the beach. And I love to go to the beach, too. So we have something in common.

CHO: Collier written to each of the 26 students individually and we quickly Learned he's told all of them about his dog.

TEACHER: What is the name of the dog? Everybody?


CHO: none of them have any idea what's about to happen.

(on camera): What is the best part of being a Pen pal with somebody like that?

CHILD: In contact with them all times. You can always talk to them if you want. But it would take sometime because Iraq is not really close To New York.

CHO: In Iraq, Sergeant Collier is an engineer, building bridges. The 22-year-old has been there Since December. He is now on two-week leave. Enough time to travel to New York to surprise the kids behind all of the letters.

TECHER: Oh my gosh.

SERGEANT COLLIER: Hi, everybody. Everybody remember me?

TEACHER: Came all the way from Iraq.

CHO: The children can't believe their eyes?

CHILD: I was about to cry. He came all the way from Iraq Just to see us.

CHO: Justin Thomas like It is uniform.

CHILD: It says that he is a kind man He is generous and he's fighting for his country and very nice.

CHO: Holly has a special connection. She was the first student to send Collier a letter. She cried when she saw him.

CHO: Hi. Why does it make you feel that Way?

HOLLY: I was so happy.


CHO: Sergeant Collier says it's his way of giving back.

COLLIER: Everybody has a pen pal at one time. You never really get to meet them. I thought it would be a special Moment to write a soldier and know I'm a real person.

CHO: There's a pep rally gifts, a special cheer.

CHILDREN: Travis! Travis. CHO: The kids have other questions.

CHILD: I want to know what your Favorite color is.

CHILD: I just want to know, like, what is his favorite color.

CHO: Sergeant Collier calls the letters a stress reliever.

COLLIER: This is my day, the favorite colors, pets, and hobbies. And that's similar to talk about.

CHO: Does it help the time pass?

COLLIER: It does.


CHO: Well, we wanted to know what his favorite color was, too. And for the record the Sergeant Collier said his favorite color is red. Now he heads back to Iraq next week. And if you're wondering how this pen pal program got started in the first place, it's really an interesting story. One of the students' mothers works with Collier's mother. Sergeant Collier's mom talked about how her son was a bit lonely over in Iraq. And the students mom said, hey, I have a great idea. Why don't we have my daughter write to him. Well, it snowballed. You know, this daughter student, she brought the letter to class and everybody wanted to write, and 26 letters later, you know, here we are.

S. O'BRIEN: I love the little girl, who says, he came all of the way from Iraq to see us. She says, I feel like the luckiest kid in America. That is so cute. They're so cute. What an amazing lesson, I think, really.

CHO: Really.

S. O'BRIEN: You can have kids that age -- and I'm sure people were seeing the story -- a light bulb goes off and says, we should be doing the same.

CHO: That's right. I mean, this is something you can't learn with a textbook in a classroom. I mean, teachers and parents said to me, it teaches them compassion. It teaches them humanitarianism. And one mother, interestingly enough, said I learned how naive my daughter was about certain things. She said that she brought a letter home one day and her daughter said, you know, mommy, can Travis and the other soldiers, can they kick each other over in Iraq? And she said, yes, honey, they can. They can do a lot more than that. She says, that's really, really bad. So these kids, you know, they're asking tough questions, and they're learning a lot in the process.

S. O'BRIEN: I imagine parents are learning a lot, too.

CHO: Oh, they are.

S. O'BRIEN: Alina Cho, thank you, wonderful story. Thanks for sharing with us.

Andy Serwer is "Minding Your Business" just ahead this morning. What are you looking at?

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: We'll see how the stock market's trading after Thursday's big sell-off. Plus, what does mom really want for Mother's Day. Hint, it's got four wheels and costs a pretty penny. Some surprises for Soledad, coming up next on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: Oh, Daryn, good morning. Want some of my cake, our cake?

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: I can only play motherhood of a three- legged cat and a four-legged dog.

S. O'BRIEN: That counts. You're in. Here, a big piece for you.

M. O'BRIEN: They love you like a mother.

KAGAN: I do. I'm the only mother they know.

Anyhow, let's talk about what's coming up at the top of the hour. We roll out the Friday edition of "LIVE TODAY" at the top of the hour.

Plus, this story from Cuba -- oh my, can you say drama. A TV revolution hits Havana. A gay soap opera gets big ratings with homosexuality coming out of the closet in Cuba.

And I'll tell you about the odd items that people use to floss their teeth. Would you believe a screwdriver. The survey has many more, you'll find out when you stay here for LIVE TODAY.

S. O'BRIEN: Wow, that can't be good for your teeth.

KAGAN: Those are big gaps.

M. O'BRIEN: Phillips head or straight.

S. O'BRIEN: Thanks, Daryn.

Ahead this morning, we catch up with actor Jeremy Piven. He is so funny. He's got a new movie. It's called "Keeping Up With the Steins." It's all about a bar mitzvah that goes horribly, horrible, horribly over the top. We'll talk about that just ahead. Plus, of course, the next season of entourage.

Love that, too.

SERWER: Love that one.

S. O'BRIEN: Stay with us. We're back in a moment.


JEREMY PIVEN, ACTOR: Do you have any idea how lucky you are? This is going to be an amazing party. But we have to pin down our theme.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'm a little shaky right on my themes right now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Is it because you don't want to compete with Zachary's party.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Today I am the king of the Torah!

PIVEN: Come on, we're going blow the Stein Bar Mitzvah away.


S. O'BRIEN: You don't have to be Jewish to love the new movie "Keeping Up With the Steins." Jeremy Piven, who is the star of HBO's "Entourage" plays the father of a boy about to be bar mitzvah-ed, and he is determined to outdo his rival's "Titanic"-themed affair. It's all a little stressful.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Benji's got some great new ideas for the bar mitzvah.

PIVEN: Eight days to go and he has new ideas.


PIVEN: Honey, we're locked and loaded here. We're ready to go.



S. O'BRIEN: Jeremy Piven joins us this morning. It's nice to see you. Thank you for talking with us.

PIVEN: Thank you for having me.

S. O'BRIEN: You're an agent again. What's that about? You're being typecast, man?

PIVEN: No, not at all. In fact, you know what's interesting about this one is, it's almost irrelevant that this guy's an agent. He's a father who is obsessed -- and I looked up "obsessed" in the dictionary, and it actually says when you've doubled your intent and forgotten your intention -- and I think -- and that also leads to hilarity, dare we say?

S. O'BRIEN: It's very, very funny, and it's also got a big moral message, which you often don't find in a movie. Big moral story, and then it's...

PIVEN: No, but that's the message, I think, to come through, is if you're laughing and you're entertaining, then it doesn't become didactic and you're OK. I want to use as many big words as I can.

S. O'BRIEN: I like that. I'm good with big words. I can't understand them all. I'll write it down later and look it up.


S. O'BRIEN: It's good for our viewing audience. They love that.

Let me ask you a question. I read that the director, Scott Marshall, said that he thought about you immediately for this role.

PIVEN: I think they all say that, to be honest with you. I think they go through the list and they're 114 deep. What about Piven? He's still cheap, and they call me.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's talk about Adam Fiedler, who's the dad, the son is being bar mitzvah-ed, and whole thing becomes this competition.

PIVEN: Yes, you have to understand, my father left him 24 years ago, so he feels abandoned by the old man. He had, in his mind, the worst bar mitzvah ever.

S. O'BRIEN: It looked bad on tape actually.

PIVEN: Yes, and actually one of those pictures was my actual bar mitzvah. I mean, my bar mitzvah, you have to understand, was the antithesis of this experience in the movie. I grew up in Chicago. My parents were stage actors.

S. O'BRIEN: So you're real bar mitzvah was nothing like this.

PIVEN: My real bar mitzvah was -- I was bar mitzvah-ed in a church, because our congregation was very liberal, and we prayed to whom it may concern, and we just prayed anywhere we could, and then my bar mitzvah, the party itself, was in my basement, and it was the best time ever. It was incredible, and this movie's about when people compete, you know, they'll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and battle each other, and they'll be on a cruise ship "Titanic"-themed, and suddenly you'll get a rapper and 50 Cent is like -- and you know, Ja Rule are there. Like pro athletes. If you ask any pro-athlete, smart money says they've shown and been paid to show up at a Bar Mitzvah. They've become, like, these big events, and you forget about that it's about a rite of passage, and it's all these beautiful and wonderful things.

S. O'BRIEN: Can I ask you about "Entourage?"

PIVEN: Yes, absolutely.

S. O'BRIEN: What's going to happen with Ari Gold? Last we saw, he was working in coffee shops. He's kind of taken a big fall. PIVEN: I can say this about him. He will rise like the phoenix. There's no keeping Ari Gold down. And This year, one of the reasons why I look like someone tied me to the back of a truck and dragged me around town is that we've working so hard. It's like, be careful what you wish for. I wanted more stuff.

No, no, no. Don't do the little violin, OK?

S. O'BRIEN: No, no, I'm sorry.

Tell me, how hard it is to be you.

PIVEN: I'm not complaining. My point is, be careful what you wish for. And I wanted more to do, and I wanted to contribute more in "Entourage," and I'm getting that, and it's so much fun. It's such hard work and we're loving it.

S. O'BRIEN: OK, good. Good luck on both "Entourage" and also this new movie.

PIVEN: Thank you. "Keeping up With the Steins."

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. Oh, thank you for pitching that. You're very helpful.

PIVEN: Yes, you do what you can.

S. O'BRIEN: Jeremy Piven joining us this morning. Thanks.

PIVEN: Thank you.



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